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Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice

Victor Sogen Hori
University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2003, 764pp
review by Vladimir K., October, 2003

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The study of koans in Western Zen has omitted one essential element common in Japanese Rinzai practice—the ‘capping phrase’ or jakugo (‘to append a phrase'). When a Japanese monk has had an insight into a koan, the master will ask for a jakugo, a phrase or verse that expresses the insight the monk has had. To find this phrase, the monk will consult one or a number of phrase books (kushu) searching book coverfor an adequate line or phrase to present to the master. In the advanced stages of koan study, the monk will also present written explanations (kakiwake) and Chinese-style poetry (nenro). According to Hori, “Such literary study is not merely an incidental part of koan study” (p.4) but an essential training for Rinzai monks. But if Zen practice is the attainment of nonrational, direct pointing at the mind, ‘not founded on words and letters’, what role does jakugo play and where did this literary tradition in Zen come from? The lengthy introduction to Zen Sand provides an insight into these questions.

This is a remarkable book of immense importance to the ongoing project of the transmission of Zen to the West. Hori has compiled and translated two capping-phrase books, Shibayama Zenkei’s (1894-1974) Zenrin kusho and Tsuchiya Etsudo’s (1899-1978) Shinsan zengoshu, resulting in the largest modern collection of capping phrases in any language, 4,022 phrases, and is second in size only to Ijushi’s Zenrin kushu, published in 1688, which has 4,380 phrases. Furthermore, Hori has included for each verse the Chinese characters, a Japanese kanji reading, an English translation, an annotation of sources (where available), a reference to the original phrase book and an indication if a particular word shows up in the glossary. Chinese names are given in the Wade-Giles romanization. The whole volume is fully indexed and has an invaluable glossary of nearly 100 pages which helps explain some of the metaphors and allusions used in the phrases. It has, as well, a full bibliography and a most valuable 87-page introduction which carefully explains and discusses the literary tradition of Zen practice. The full introduction is available for downloading for free in Acrobat .pdf format. (Hori has also written about his experiences in translating the Zen Sand. This was published before Zen Sand and you can read it here.)

In his introduction, Hori points out that Rinzai koan practice is “like all Buddhist practices”, (p.5) a religious practice. While religious experience may be indescribable (and Zen does have a history of discouraging discussion of Zen experience), this does not necessarily mean that the experience is devoid of any intellectual activity, just that any language about the experience can be meaningful only to those who have shared the experience. Without such an experience, Zen language appears nonsensical and illogical, especially in koans. What’s missing is a reference point. If we are not privy to the reference made in the language, then it would appear to have no meaning. For example, how could you describe the taste of chocolate to one who has never tasted it? The best one could do is to use analogy, metaphor and description but the listener would still not know how chocolate really tasted until it was placed in the mouth; likewise with the Zen experience.

The use of jakugo in Zen practice goes back at least to the Sung Dynasty (AD 960 - 1270). The Hekigan-roku has examples of jakugo in Engo’s capping phrases to Setcho’s verse on the main case. Likewise, Mumon’s four line verses in the Mumonkan are jakugo. Originally, jakugo were written by the monks themselves but gradually they were collected in books for reference and verses from Chinese poetry, Buddhist sutras, Confusion classics, historical writings and Taoist works were included. The result is a collection that plunders classical Chinese history, philosophy, poetry and literature as well as Buddhist texts.

What has never been adequately explained is where the koans came from in the first place. Hori advances a unique theory of the origin of koans and jakugo as having a background in classical Chinese “literary games” but in the service of Zen insight. These Chinese literary games pre-date the arrival of Ch’an/Zen in China and were an intellectual competition between players using highly allusive language to say something without actually saying it and thereby tripping up the opposition. Hidden meanings, inside jokes, obscure references and just plain cleverness were all part of the game. For Hori, the use of jakugo in Japanese Rinzai is a return to the origins of koans. Hori’s theory goes some way to explaining the humour, the acid tongue, the wit and the highly allusive language found in koan collections. One-the-spot improvisations, a feature of these games, is also highly valued in Zen dialogues, as is “turning the other’s spear against him” where one player (or Zen monk) recognizes the other’s strategy and turns it around to defeat the other (sometimes called "Dharma combat" in Zen).

Following from this view of Zen koans and the tradition behind them, Hori claims that “the notion of a mind-to-mind transmission outside of language did not originate with Zen [but]…Zen adopted it from Chinese literary culture.” (p. 56) The author sees the concept of wu wei (non-action) as originating not in Zen but in a classical Chinese culture that pre-dates Ch’an/Zen. As he says, “the entire educated world of China saw the epitome of learned discourse as one in which the partners were so learned that they communicated more through silence than through words.” (p. 57) The significance of this for Zen practice is understanding that Zen does not mean abandoning words and language, but on mastering them to the extent that one can communicate “mind-to-mind”.

But it would be wrong to think that Hori sees Zen koan practice as nothing more than some literary game. He is careful to reiterate that insight into a koan is fundamentally a religious matter. “The koan is both the means for and the realization of, a religious experience that finally consumes the self.” (p. 52) Victor Sogen Hori’s own background reaffirms this understanding. He received a doctoral degree in philosophy from Stanford University in 1976, the same year he was ordained as a Zen monk. He subsequently spent thirteen years studying Rinzai in Japan, returning to academic life in 1990. He is currently professor of Japanese religions in the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University.

This beautiful volume is recommended unreservedly. It is a major contribution to Western zen for academics and practitioners alike. The glossary is most helpful and I found Hori’s discussion of the origins of koans and jakugo fascinating and providing new insights into an ancient practice. The academic standard is of the highest order. Thoroughly researched and referenced, it will undoubtedly become a classic in the English-speaking Zen world.

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